5 Don’ts for Managing MBA Recommendation Writers

I recently got off the phone with a business school applicant who believes poor recommendations were a key reason she was not admitted to school last year.

She carefully selected her recommenders and gave them several months’ advance notice. Her first recommender gave her a copy of his letter after submitting it. It was six pages long, written with care – and all wrong. He emphasized the wrong qualities, rambled like crazy and did not provide relevant examples.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon, and it’s the reason why properly managing your recommenders is just as important as selecting the right ones. Heed these five don’ts for doing so, and you’ll avoid a lot of unnecessary anxiety at a time when you are already under a lot of pressure.

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1. Don’t assume he or she will remember all of your achievements or know what to write about: Your recommender is probably time-strapped and doesn’t remember those three amazing examples of your leadership. They also probably don’t know exactly what schools are looking for in letters of recommendation.

Show your reccomender your essays and decide on four or five key traits that you would like him or her to emphasize throughout the letter, such as leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, determination, focus, intelligence, charisma and integrity.

Come up with at least one concrete example that you feel illustrates each characteristic.

Here’s what an instance of initiative might look like: “Last year, when I learned that international sales were declining, I took it upon myself to research the competitive landscape and learned of two recent market entrants. I then offered to lead a team to analyze these new competitors and develop a strategy for regaining our market share. Our team of five analysts proposed a solution after one week of work. The solution was implemented and within six months, we gained back 5 percent of lost market share.”

2. Don’t bombard them with too many materials or reminders: Doing this can overwhelm your recommender and lead them to ignore what you’ve prepared for them. Create a bulleted list of all of the projects that you have worked on and an outline of your strengths that go into more detail than your resume.

You want your recommenders to actually read this document, so try to keep it to one page and do not overload them with information. It should be a helpful, quick reference.

3. Don’t allow your recommender to provide a rave review without supporting their statements with solid facts: The cardinal rule of good writing – show, don’t tell – is equally important in a letter of recommendation. The admissions committee really wants to get that third-party perspective missing from your essays, test scores and interview.

No one expects the applicant to be perfect, however. The best recommendation letters paint a vivid picture of the candidate that brings the candidate on paper to life.

4. Don’t let them submit late under any circumstances: It’s important to get started on this process as early as possible. Your recommender should know that writing such a letter is both an honor and responsibility.

Give them plenty of time to prepare for your deadline. You may find it helpful to advance the due date by a week or so in order to remove one last-minute worry from your plate.

5. Don’t write the recommendation letter for them: In an effort to save time or ease their burden, a recommender may ask you to write the letter for them to sign. Don’t do it!

For one, the admissions committee will probably recognize your writing style from your essays and that will immediately raise a red flag. And secondly, if the individual doesn’t have enough time to write a proper recommendation, you would be better off seeking out someone who is more enthusiastic about championing your business school dreams.

On the other hand, if the reason for the request is because English is a second language for your supervisor and he or she is worried about sounding unprofessional, you have two options. The first is simply to not worry about it and explain that the admissions committee is focused solely on the content of the message and understands any language limitations that may exist. However, if you fear it might become a distraction, hire a translator and eliminate that concern.

If you can help your recommenders stay on message, deliver on time and provide vivid examples of your professional skills, you will have this element of your MBA application well in hand.

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